The Itinerant Evangelical Preachers of the American Frontier
They Served as News-Bearers and Moral Purveyors
In 1838, four-year-old Wes rode next to his father, Joseph Powell, on the last leg of their journey south to Jackson from Chillicothe, their horse-drawn cart rolling easily down the unusually wide dirt road that wound through the rugged Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio. They may have felt like pioneers, but that same hard-beaten path had carried multifarious travelers since the last Ice Age, all drawn by the region’s salt licks—the deposits of natural saltwater springs—so thick as to permanently frost the banks of local creeks.
First had come the mastodons and shaggy mammoths of the Pleistocene, later followed by herds of bison—and then the first human beings to leave a mark on the land, the mysterious mound-building peoples of a mere two millennia before. In historic times, the Shawnee had padded silently on moccasined feet, and just three decades earlier, the first European settlers had crossed the Appalachians to settle. Six age-old “salt roads” converged like the spokes of a wagon wheel upon what had only very recently become the town of Jackson.
The Powells’ cart pulled up the steep escarpment to the rutted main street of Jackson, which crested the 50-foot ridgeline, commanding views of a rugged hilly land harrowed by ridges, deep ravines, and creeks. Mean-looking wooden houses did duty for the town’s main street, every bit as tough as its namesake, Andrew Jackson, Indian killer and hard-handed populist president. Eden it was not, but elements of civilization had reached there, most notably Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches. Jackson also boasted a post office, hotel, and six shops, including Mrs. Sylvester’s, which sold ginger cakes. The town hall faced French’s Tavern, Jackson’s most thriving establishment.
The 34-year-old Methodist preacher had brought his young family here from western New York State at the suggestion of a fellow Welsh minister. They had agreed that too few souls were left to save in the New York panhandle, a region roiled by evangelical Christian revivals. The Reverend Benjamin Chidlaw knew of several largely Welsh communities that thrived 20 miles outside Jackson, whose men worked blast furnaces that turned rich local veins of iron ore into pig iron, which the burgeoning railroads were already consuming in great quantities. Childlaw figured that these devout Calvinistic Methodists might profit from some ministering. That was all Joseph had needed to uproot his wife, Mary, two daughters, and Wes, to journey some 500 miles southwest.
Joseph likely did not know that his destination lay in a veritable war zone. Only 50 miles separated Jackson from the Ohio River, which divided the free state of Ohio from slaveholding Kentucky. The lands bordering this “magic line”—as Harriet Tubman famously called it—rippled and bucked in disorder as southern bounty hunters pursued slaves escaping northward, often clashing with those who did not recognize human beings as chattel. In Ohio particularly, an outspoken breed of take-no-prisoners abolitionism had arisen, met with equally strident resistance from a merchant class desperate to preserve commerce with the cottonrich South. And a hundred and twenty miles west of Jackson, in Cincinnati, the harrowing story of a mother’s winter passage over the frozen Ohio to freedom, clutching her baby to her breast, would inspire Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the antislavery polemic which next to the Bible would become the most-read book of the 19th century and hasten the nation toward terrible civil war.
Joseph’s immersion in this fraught borderland would force him down an unanticipated path. Unlike the vast majority of evangelical Methodists, most of whom condoned slavery—either owning slaves themselves or trusting in the Peculiar Institution to fade in time—Joseph would find that his faith called upon him to reject human bondage outright. He would become a radical, one among only a handful of white abolitionists making up a fringe movement whose members Ralph Waldo Emerson dismissed as “angry bigots.” No one, certainly not the Sage of Concord, liked even the hint of getting their noses rubbed in the moral contradictions upon which the Founders had built the republic. Joseph’s newly awakened beliefs would bring violence to his family’s very door; his son would feel the repercussions of his father’s radicalized passions most keenly. A flare of violence would imprint itself on the boy for life, shaping—more than any other experience over seven decades—how he would bring himself to face this treacherous world.
Joseph Powell’s most symbolic act in America had come four years earlier as he held his newborn eldest surviving male child for the first time. Staring into the infant’s blinking eyes, he named him John Wesley; not simply John or Wesley, but the full name of Methodism’s great founder. The Welsh immigrant had first felt Methodism’s powerful urgings in the Old World, but it would be in the New that they would fully flower. By so naming his son, Joseph had solemnly pledged the infant Wes to carry on the work of the Lord to which he himself had so ardently committed. Joseph would see to it that his son memorize the Gospels and shout out the hymns.
From an early age, Wes felt his father’s expectations weigh heavily upon his small shoulders. His father would leave for a month at a time to preach across the wilderness: Armed with a Bible, a volume of John Wesley’s sermons, and a hymnbook without musical notations, Joseph would saddle up the family horse and ride forth on a 12-stop circuit that would take him away for an eternity—or so it must have seemed to a family that ultimately swelled to eight children. Young Wes increasingly took on the duties of helping his siblings read their Bible lessons and sing their hymns. In these long absences his mother, Mary, tempered the rough edges of zeal that Joseph left behind, providing emotional support for her often-overburdened eldest son.
Wes had to grow up fast in a nation spreading ever faster before his feet and those of hundreds of thousands of other new Americans. No one had anticipated the speed with which the newly arrived Europeans, along with their enslaved Africans and West Indians, would settle the continent. Thomas Jefferson thought it might take a thousand years to reach the far Pacific, when in fact it took only a long lifetime. The frontier of 1800, running along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains, would jump beyond the Ohio Valley in just nine years, then surge across the length of the Mississippi by 1850. In 1890, the U.S. Census would declare the frontier gone.
In the first few decades of the 19th century, the flood of immigrants poured into the vast “trans-Appalachian” West—defined as the area west of the Appalachians, but east of the Mississippi—which contained more square miles than Great Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium combined. They came from England, Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, France, Wales, the West Indies, and West Africa, borne by flatboat up the Ohio, on wagon or foot along ancient Indian trails, or later—like the Powells—upon the Erie Canal. Many of these newcomers could not speak English, and many were semiliterate at best; few had any idea what America—scarcely more than a name on the wind—offered aside from raw opportunity. This overwhelming tide brought about one of the most explosive population increases in history.
The center of American gravity—its politics, its institutional loyalties—was shifting inexorably west and south. With the federal government weak, as Andrew Jackson had willed it, at least by European standards, and no state religion to clarify doctrines of morality and conduct, the trans-Appalachian West lay in a ferment of new ideas and institutions. Evangelical Protestantism took hold tenaciously: Few other periods of sectarian growth in the history of Christianity rival its wildfire spread across America’s heartland. Revivalist, evangelical Protestantism overshadowed the Anglican and Congregational traditions of the East Coast within a generation of the opening of the Erie Canal. New denominational energies, such as those of the Methodists, Baptists, and even entirely new churches—the Shakers, Disciples of Christ, Millerites—flourished, but none rose and spread so quickly as Methodism, which had outpaced all other American denominations by 1850.“For a generation or more, the cultural cohesion of trans-Appalachia was largely shaped and energized by the dedicated flock of exhausted, saddle-sore men pushing their horses from settlement to settlement.”
Joseph lent his considerable energies to an inspired Methodist strategy to bring the Word to this huge moving frontier. He and some 4,000 other circuit-riding preachers set out to reach remote settlements on horseback and foot. Often not even ordained, yet licensed to preach, many circuit riders came from among the ranks of artisans and shopkeepers who could support themselves and their families without depending on meager central church stipends. When not riding the appalling roads, Joseph worked long hours in the front room of their small house on Jackson’s Main Street, stitching coats, shirts, and jackets late into the night by the flicker of a single candle. Better to wear out than to rust out, as the Founder liked to say.
In a land yet to see a national newspaper or electric telegraph, in which information traveled at the speed of a man on horseback and the post office was viewed with suspicion as an arm of intrusive government, the circuit riders stepped in as news-bearers and moral purveyors, arbiters of good manners and proper dress, the critical dispensers of knowledge and propriety to the young republic. For a generation or more, the cultural cohesion of trans-Appalachia was largely shaped and energized by the dedicated flock of exhausted, saddle-sore men pushing their horses from settlement to settlement.
The peculiarly American figure of the itinerant preacher evoked the popular midwesterners’ response to bad weather: “There’s nothing out today but crows and Methodist preachers.” The 1784 Book of Discipline, which laid down the principles and doctrine of the Church, contained words rewritten for an America suddenly embracing a continental vision: “To reform the continent, and to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.” Methodism formed the bedrock of the American South’s and Midwest’s blend of apolitical anti-elitism and social conservatism.
The circuit rider depended on families to shelter and feed him. In return, he passed on news of his earlier stops—of who had died and who had been born, the by no means infrequent roster of appalling accidents or outbreaks of disease that haunted the frontier—sold the books he carried with him, both religious and secular, and handed out dated newspapers. The task routinely included passing on information not just about the next town, but about the rather ill-defined world at large, and how to live better in their own. Ordained or not, he might perform a marriage, funeral, or baptism. At midday, wherever he was, he would set up at a crossroads, perhaps, in front of a homestead, or quite frequently, in a mere field or barn—and set to preaching. Without notes, he would sermonize in homespun prose, Bible in hand, outlining how living John Wesley’s “methodical” life meant forgoing cursing, drinking spirits, committing adultery, fornicating, and dressing provocatively or ostentatiously. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” he might tell them, citing one of Wesley’s innumerable and often memorable axioms. Methodist preachers were advised themselves to “Beware of clownishness, [either in speech or dress. Wear no slouched hat.] Be courteous to all.” He would lead them in a few hymns, perhaps “Amazing Grace” or “Come, Sinner, to the Gospel Feast.”
The riders offered the men, women, and children of this New World the intoxicating chance to wipe away their sins right there and then on that patch of meadow, dusty road, or porch front—but only if they repented and took Jesus Christ as their personal savior. For a young republic of immigrants on the move, Joseph and his circuit-riding brethren brought nourishment that no bread or riches could provide, the chance to unload sins and embrace the opportunities of living a God-fearing, productive life in a land full of uncertainties. For Wes, the message rang clear that through self-discipline and constant industry, human beings could overcome evil and the challenges of a new land.
From THE PROMISE OF THE GRAND CANYON by John F. Ross, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by John F. Ross.